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Skip Navigation LinksHero System>Tactical Principles
Tactical Principles for HERO
Practically all Role Playing Games rely on some degree of combat to resolve encounters, and come with various rules describing how to accomplish this within the confines of that game. Indeed, many RPG's consist of little else besides how to make a character, things to fight with them, and how to do so. 
Many RPG's combat system's suffer from a certain abstractness or disconnect from reality. Frequently it seems likely that the game designers that designed the combat resolution mechanics for a particular game had no idea how violence works in the real world, and as such combat in those systems lacks verisimilitude, fails to allow for strategic or tactical decisions to matter, and otherwise result in a system that is only meaningful and useable in a metagame exercise of exploiting it's peculiarities.
The HERO System, fortunately, is not such a game though there is some degree of abstractness, consistent with the system's practice of dividing Special Effect from Game Effect, and a "cinematic realism" slant that favors non-lethal damage. Overall the HERO System's highly granularized combat model supports a wide range of combat actions with a high degree of verisimilitude. Not only is it very possible to employ actual tactics that result in real benefits, the system actively encourages it.
However it has been my experience that despite the richness of expression permitted in the HERO System most players and GM's I've had contact with over the years seem to be either entirely unaware of it or incapable of capitalizing upon it.
I've often been baffled by this behavior; but after lengthy conversations and prolonged observations it finally dawned on me that the reason often is that many players and GM's do not understand the basic principles of tactics and / or how to apply them to a RPG. This article collects some of my thoughts in an attempt to perhaps illuminate the matter for interested parties.
Easy to learn but difficult to master, the basics of Tactics are simple ideas and they are few in number. It all boils down to being aware of several things; most significantly to a RP environment are:
  1. Know the Game System
  2. Know your character
  3. Know your enemy
  4. Know your terrain
  5. Maintain Situational Awareness
Even in it's most verbose form (5th Edition Revised), the core mechanics of the HERO System combat rules occupy about six pages of actual text eliding various illustrations. This covers all the key concepts of how the SPD chart works, Aborting, Holding, and other timing considerations, and actual to-hit resolution.
The remainder of the Combat section describes things ranging from how movement works, how senses work, how damage works, various things that make combat more difficult like Encumbrance and the Environment, and copious explanations for how various Maneuvers work.
In it's entirety the Combat & Adventuring section is a mere 84 illustration and example laden pages, plus a few useful charts and a sample combat. This is the core of the game, and yet it seems that most players and even some GM's are completely unfamiliar with entire sections of it. Don't be one of them.


If you are a player that doesn't own the main rule book you could pick up the HERO System Combat Handbook, which reprints Chapter 2 Combat & Adventuring of the main rulebook plus various expanded options and exposition from the genre books.
If you plan to play the game more than a couple of times, it will be time well spent. In particular pay attention to the Standard and Optional Maneuvers. If you are a player you can hold off on mastering the Martial Maneuvers until you decide to play a character with some Martial Arts (at which time you're going to want the Ultimate Martial Artist anyway).
In particular consider various options like Multiple Power Attack, Sweep & Rapid Fire, Move By & Move Thru, Haymaker, and Grab. These are all very useful tactically to expand a character's effectiveness.
Also, pay special attention to Block, Dodge, Roll with a Punch, and Dive For Cover. Additionally, though not mentioned specifically, a character can stand up as part of an Abort ("Get to one's feet" being a 1/2 Phase Maneuver that has the defensive benefit of improving the character's DCV from 1/2 DCV for being Prone). Understand the pros and cons of each defensive Manuever and when to use them. The ability to take defensive actions out of initiative order is a hallmark of the HERO System and a major enabler of good tactics.
Even if you understand the way the combat system works, to employ good tactics you must first understand your own character. You need to comprehend their strengths and their weaknesses, and how their abilities work.
Putting aside personality and other roleplaying considerations, a character sheet represents a finite collection of capabilities that interact with the larger game system. It is not unreasonable to expect the players of such characters to read the sections of the rules pertaining to their character's particular abilities and assimilate not only how they work independently, but how they work together.
Comprehending if the character is set up to take advantage of particular combat options, where their odds of success are best and worst, the particular advantage they gain from assignable resource such as Skill Levels or Framework allocations, and other such granular considerations inform tactical decisions greatly.
Aside from understanding the mechanics behind the character, also give thought to the personality of the character and how you visualize them in your mind. If you think of your character as being in a movie, then think of yourself as being the Special Effects team responsible for making it possible for the character to jump around, fight, and do larger than life cinematic things. If you can't imagine it, then your character isn't going to be able to portray it.
So visualize how the character moves, the kind of things they are good at, signature stunts, and whatnot. Play thru some scenes across your mind's stage; conduct thought experiments about how a scenario would play out, daydream, or whatever means you prefer to ignite your imagination. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity in his head, you should be able to figure out how Thunor the Barbarian uses Block, Sweep, and Move By to good effect in yours.
Once you have the idea in your mind's eye look at the character's sheet and figure out how to use the rules to portray the events you imagined. When you get around to actually executing the idea in game not only will your tactics be improved (assuming you execute in an appropriate circumstance), but the detailed description you give will enhance the imagery of the scene for everyone else, and if done correctly enhances the realization of the character's roleplaying portrayal.
There are four major categories for character abilities. Consider how your character's abilities fall into these groups:
  1. Offense
  2. Defense
  3. Mobility
  4. Utility
Obviously, anything intended to harm or hamper opponents is an Offense. Be aware of all of your character's offensive capabilities; both those on their sheet and those built into the system and readily accessible such as Standard Maneuvers, Presense Attacks, Knockdown / Knockback, Falling and other Environment damage, and using objects as weapons.
Anything that can prevent your character from coming to harm, or else mitigates harm is a defensive capability. What is and isn't a defense isn't always obvious; in addition to clear-cut defenses such as Armor it is possible for both Mobility and Utility abilities to serve as defenses situationally, such as Desolid and Flight. Block, Dodge, Roll with Punch, and Dive For Cover are all very important considerations in this regard, as are some key Skills and Talents such as Defense Maneuver, Breakfall, and Combat Luck.
Frequently overlooked or mismanaged, a character's Defensive Combat Value is of key importance. Understanding how to manage one's current DCV intelligently is a crucial aspect of HERO System tactics. As part of this give all due consideration to using Maneuvers that reduce a character to 1/2 DCV, as well as the utility of actions that result in an opponent dropping to 1/2 DCV.
This category includes both the obvious abilities such as Flight and Running, and less obvious abilities such as Acrobatics, Leaping, and Clinging. Use your character's movement abilities intelligently; for instance I've seen a surprising number of players forget that heightened STR grants extra Leaping, and I've seen several players with a character that has Clinging (or Flight Only in Contact With A Surface) fail to think in three dimensions.
As a side note, many players don't seem to realize that you can mix movement. All too often I've seen things like a character 1/2 Phase Run to the base of a wall and then stop, waiting until their next action to start climbing or flying or swimming, etc.
Get used to thinking in terms of 1/2 Moves, and using movement to position the character intelligently on the battle field to take advantage of terrain, cover, concealment, to maintain distance from dangerous HtH opponents, to force opponents to waste actions closing, and to set up for an attack in a later Phase.
If you have the option of standing still + doing something or half moving + doing something then do the later. Unless your character is in a particularly advantageous place, standing still just gives opponents time to assimilate your position and maneuver around you or pin you down.
The obligatory catch all category, any abilities your character has that do something besides hurt others, protect themselves, or move them about are Utility abilities. That's not to imply that they are undesirable; far from it in fact.
Things like Enhanced Senses, beneficial Adjustment Powers, some Body Affecting Powers, and almost all Skills, Talents, and Perks fall into this category. Though Utility abilities rarely have much of an impact on Tactics, being more Strategic or situational, every now and then a clever use of a Utility ability will have interesting tactical ramifications.
Due to the nature of roleplaying games, you really aren't supposed to know your enemy too well since it detracts from the fun of the game. Some players or GM's even go so far as to claim that using tactics to defeat opponents in-game is an exercise in metagaming, i.e. manipulating the rules of the game rather than using in-game logic to drive their actions, but I personally think that's just a cop op to defend their inability to envision the scene in their minds and / or use their character's intelligently.
It is completely reasonable that characters can and should use observations gained in game to inform their decisions intelligently, both pre-combat and during combat.
Obviously if an opponent carries a big gun it communicates a need for different tactics than if they were laden with lots of sharp pointy things, and it's not unreasonable for a character having observed this fact to act appropriately. The semblance may be a ruse or later prove to be misleading, but it's just good thinking to proceed as if what the character is sensing in the game is true until proven otherwise and act accordingly.
Similarly as a combat progresses, characters observe things like the relative speed or strength of an opponent, that they favor a particular maneuver, have a distinctive SFX that presages a certain type of attack, and so forth. It is not unreasonable for a character to use this new found knowledge of their opponent to take appropriate action. Out of game this results in metagame thinking to consider and employ well chosen tactics to defeat the opponent, but its not out of character as it is simply using information gained by the character in-game.
Far from detracting from the verisimilitude of the game, asking the GM to fully describe the SFX, any "wind up" for various maneuvers, various "tells" required by activation Limitations on their abilities, and similar in-game details pertaining to the opponents' actions not only informs tactical decisions, it also results in a much better described and higher quality mental picture of an encounter. And that's just beneficial to good roleplaying, plain and simple.
Similarly that amount of detail makes opponents far more memorable and is particularly advantageous and enriching to the game in the case of reoccurring NPC's.
The terrain is either your greatest ally or your greatest enemy. More battles have been affected by terrain and environment than any other consideration. Pay attention to the details of the battleground du jour, taking full advantage of sight lines, cover, concealment, avenues of approach, useful objects, and high ground. Use it to your own advantage, deprive advantages to the opposition, and be mindful of hazards.
Ask the GM to describe the scene in detail and if not playing on a battlemap, draw a quick abstract sketch and ask the GM if it's accurate. Understanding where things are at in relation to each other is very important, particularly for highly mobile characters.
Pay attention to events in play. Be aware of where characters are in relation to each other, who has yet to act in a Phase, who has acted in a Phase, and be particularly alert to unexpected opportunities that transpire.
Combat is all about timing. Doing the exact same move with the exact same rolls can be brilliant or stupid, all based upon timing. Assuming you Know the System, Your Character, Your Enemy, and the Terrain, you have a plethora of tools in your character's toolbox at your disposal, but without understanding when it is a good idea to use which one it amounts to naught.
Some players have a tendency to find one or two actions that work for them and then just blindly apply them to every situation regardless of whether it is appropriate or not. Don't get hung up on a particular stunt or trick. It's not a question of Holding, or Aborting, or Maneuvering, or Alpha-striking, or what have you. All are good options for characters of various designs, but only when timing favors them.
Similarly some players have abilities that are only useful in certain circumstances, but they try to use them in situations where they are not appropriate, or success with them is not auspicious. Growing frustrated by failure, the player then disregards the ability and never uses it again. It's like getting frustrated when a wrench fails to drive a screw, and subsequently never using the wrench even when presented with a bolt that needs to be tightened.
A good chunk of solid tactics is simply using the right tool at the right time.
An important corollary to tactics is managing your character's risk. Blindly charging about doing dangerous things without a commensurate potential for payoff only works for so long. It's all well and good to take risks, but remember to Cover Your Ass (CYA). Understand when the situation is conducive to employing an all out attack, when it is conducive to holding back, when an all out defense is necessary, and when you should gain space to recover.
In a larger sense you should also consider risk to your character's teammates and allies, if any. Sometimes the best thing to do in the bigger picture is to "take one for the team" to protect a crucial teammate, or to set another teammate up.
Sometimes events occur that are irregular, unplanned for, unpredictable. It is often worth extra risk to capitalize on these unexpected opportunities. In militaristic jargon this is known as "targets of opportunity".
When opponents unexpectedly lower their DCV, turn their back to the character, suffer a fumble, take an action early in a Phase (and thus briefly lose their ability to Abort), have to change clips, or otherwise suffer a momentary impediment it is tactically sound to exploit the opportunity. Characters with "Code of the HERO",  "Honorable", and similar Disadvantages may not be able to capitalize on such boons, but other characters certainly can.
Tactics are essentially fluid and situational so it is basically impossible to codify them into  inviolate strictures without rendering them counterproductive. For tactics to remain viable they must remain flexible and agile.
However, there are some general rules of thumb that will serve you well in a HERO System combat.
Do not have your characters just stand around hitting and getting hit. Not only is this boring, it uses like 1% of the Combat System. You might as well just roll dice randomly to kill time, if that's all you want to do.
Move around, use Manuevers, Abort to defensive actions intelligently, use things in play to springboard off of, get creative. Combat doesn't have to be a race to the last hit point.
All HERO System combats start on Phase 12. This gives everyone a chance to go in the same Phase and prevents slower characters from getting bent over a barrel before they get a chance to do anything.
It is all too tempting to start off the combat with a bang and rip loose with an all out attack, but unless you can totally devastate the opposition or have defenses that are so good you can weather the return fire it is a mistake.
Hold your action and be prepared to take evasive / defensive action if necessary. Let your opponent show their hand first, and if possible counter punch after they have committed themselves to something.
If your character happens to know that the opposition has an attack that is so powerful allowing them to use it results in something between an unfavorable trade and total catastrophe, then by all means take them out first even if it means going in Phase 12.
If your character has an attack that has a non-negligible Endurance cost, then use it before the end of Segment 12 if possible so that the free Post Segment 12 REC will help defray it's cost.
aka "Kick em when they are down"
A lot of players are used to games without a clean "STUN" concept, and once opponents go down they stay down. Not so in the HERO System. While "agents" or "mooks" might stay down at the GM's option, notable characters get Recoveries and will stand back up again if allowed to regain their composure. It's amazing how even players that have been playing HERO's for a while seem to forget this.
When a tough opponent gets staggered or goes below 0 STUN hit 'em again to make sure they stay down (unless it runs against your character's roleplaying of course).
Once they are exposed to the idea and see how it works, many a player becomes enamored of Sweep and Rapid Fire (same mechanic), and proceed to use the Maneuver every chance they get without recourse to the consequences. This is a mistake that they are easily made to pay for as their DCV drops to half and they subsequently get drubbed by return fire.
Which isn't to say that Sweep and Rapid Fire aren't good options. They are fantastic options in general, but they favor characters that have lower DCV and higher OCV via combat levels. The lower the character's DCV to begin with, the less impact dropping to 1/2 DCV is.
Characters with high DCV should pursue other options to increase their volume of attacks such as Multiple Power Attacks, Autofire, or taking advantage of Two Weapon Fighting to reduce the DCV penalty of Sweep / Rapid Fire.
For some characters Spreading is another useful option for affecting more than one opponent, but this has bigger ramifications and is discussed independently below.
SEGMENTS (1, 5 ,7, 11)
According to the Speed Chart that drives combat's flow, fewer SPD values get actions on Segments 1, 5, 7, and 11 making these Phases ideal for taking Held Actions, particularly if your character has a follow-up action in the Segment immediately following.
Its also useful to set up Haymakers to end in 5, 7, and 11 (not so much 1 due to crossing Post-Segment 12). Hold to the end of 4, 6, or 10 and start a Haymaker, and let it land in 5,7, or 11.
Using one action to take out two opponents, particularly in a case where one is adjacent (in HtH range) and the other isn't, is a very effective tactic. There are several ways to do this.
Not in the main rulebook, but clarified in the Rules FAQ and later publications (such as the aforementioned Combat Handbook), a character can Knockback an opponent in such a way as to hit a third character. This requires a to-hit roll using only the attackers base OCV vs. the third character's DCV.
Similarly, though not as efficiently, it is possible to throw an opponent that has already been grabbed in a previous Phase at another character.
The Martial Maneuver Shove is quite useful in this regard -- you can Shove one character some distance and into another, also gaining some movement yourself. It is also one of the easier ways to move opponents around against their will, and all in all a very under utilized Maneuver.
Martial Maneuvers built on different bases can be used together as a Multiple Power Attack to pull off very efficient actions like Nerve Strike + Take Away + Leg Sweep and other such devastating combos. If one is prone to watching Kung Fu movies, a lot of the crazier stunts seen therein are most closely modeled in the HERO System via creative combinations of MPA'd Martial Maneuvers.
A frequently overlooked gem of a rule, Spreading allows a character to either trade damage classes for extra OCV, or more commonly to trade damage classes to make a non-AoE attack into a small AoE. I've seen innumerable players with characters that could spread their attacks never use the option.
There is even an option to allow characters to Spread their Strength, which is a very useful trick. Beg your GM to allow it, but beware the opposition using it on you.
aka "don't turn your back on a loaded gun"
If possible, try to position your character so that no enemies are behind them, particularly if the character has a high DCV and lower defenses.
Failing that, if it is at all justifiable for your character's concept, get Defense Maneuver IV. It's just about the best spent 10 points you'll likely have on your sheet.
aka "How many points did you save with that Focus again?"
Don't forget you can target Foci. Even if a Focus is indestructible (most aren't), you can knock it loose if it's Accessible and thus deprive an opponent of whatever abilities were purchased via the Focus.
When using the Terrain to ones own advantage, Concealment is often available. Use it.
If the situation presents itself and your character is taking ranged fire, feel free to rip up or grab some appropriately useful object and use it as a Tower Shield to provide concealment and if the GM is kind some extra DEF.
In a situation where some opponents are close in to fight in HtH, and other opponents are standing off to use Ranged attacks try to maneuver in such a way to keep the closer HtH opponents between your character and the ranged opponents.
When receiving ranged fire, and assuming no opponents are inconveniently close to melee range, don't forget that you can Drop Prone as a 0 Phase Action, which is combinable with an Abort to Dodge or similar. This is not exactly the same as Dive For Cover, though you do go to 1/2 DCV for being prone.
The advantages of doing so are three fold; first off unlike D4C there is no DEX Roll involved, secondly if you don't abort to it but do it on your own Phase it can be combined with other Actions (such as Full Move, Drop Prone), and finally you benefit from any Concealment which can either impose an OCV penalty on a shooter or even prevent them from firing at your character at all if they can no longer see you.
Ideally you want to keep enemies on the ground and your character or allies that have the capability off the ground. It is almost always a smart tactical move to ground an opponent or to get oneself or an ally off the ground.
An efficient tactic for characters able to gain altitude via some fashion is to get above an opponent and shoot from above them, seeking to do downward Knockback. This gains three things if successful; firstly the opponent takes damage from the initial attack, secondly they lose altitude at a disfavorable rate (it takes 2" to go up 1" for most forms of movement, but Knockback is 1 for 1), and thirdly enough Knockback will put them into the ground for more damage (and if they are Flying, Gliding, or Swinging they take an extra d6 of Knockback).
Full Move (FMove) Maneuvers are great because they frequently allow your character to take three or more 1/2 Phase Actions in a single Full Phase. That's just good Action Economy no matter how you slice it.
The three FMove Standard Maneuvers (Move By, Move Thru, and Grab By) are all decent, but the FMove Martial Maneuvers are all worth their weight and several are among the best Maneuvers in the game. 
Whether your character has the Martial versions or must rely on the Standard ones, get familiar with them and apply that knowledge liberally.
This probably goes without saying, but if your character has a respectable AoE or Autofire and several opponents clump together in nice tight little kill radius, it might be a good idea to shift gears from what you were planning on doing that Phase and taking advantage of the opportunity to punish them for it.
Similarly, it is possible to arrange a battlefield to force opponents to clump up for AoE's, and it is also possible to push them together over time via intersecting lines of fire that leave a seemingly safe pocket somewhere. The opposition naturally finds their way into this pocket and then blammo.
In games with more unusual abilities this can also be accomplished by using abilities like Force Wall, Darkness, and Change Environment to render areas undesirable or off limits, forcing foes to group up. Knockback and Throws can also be used to cluster opponents; several allies could all deposit an opponent into a tight area to set a blaster or equivalent up for a big finish, for instance.
Often a GM will present a group of opponents that are individually well suited to facing off against one or more PC's. If the GM then engages the PC's individually with these mini-nemesis and the PC's get stuck in with them accordingly, it can make for a long fight.
Let the GM have a little fun, but after about a TURN or so consider having your character deliberately disrupt the pairings. Cheapshot an opponent that is giving a comrade a hard time of it, freeing your ally to either finish them off or in turn helping out another ally (maybe even you).
This is good tactics (it's never smart to fight your enemies battle), but on the other hand it can be frustrating to the GM, so use responsibly.
If for some reason you aren't sure what to do, or no particularly worthwhile target is presenting itself then 1/2 Move and Hold a 1/2 Phase. Consider it your filler action of choice.
If you frequently find yourself with nothing to do it's possible you need to reevaluate the character and either get an ability that takes time to use like Find Weakness or Aid so that you can translate all those extra actions into something useful, or perhaps lower your SPD and recoup some points.
Alternately you might just be indecisive, which you are on your own to resolve.
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